Article By Akira Kitade

(This article was translated into English from the Japanese manuscript which was published

  in the September issue of "Ushio", a major monthly magazine in Japan.)

Authors Bio

Born in Mie, Japan, 1944. After graduating from Keio University in1966, Akira Kitade worked for the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO), and was stationed in Geneva, Switzerland; Dallas, Texas; and Seoul, South Korea. He was appointed Convention Promotion Manager in 1998. He retired from JNTO in 2004. Akira Kitade has published several books, including Poet of the Snow, Charisma of Korea’s Tourism, Pusan Harbor Tales, and most recently, Visas of Life and the Epic Journey, a 2017 Foreign Minister Commendation recipient.

The achievement of the Honorary Consul of the Netherlands in Lithuania is buried in history.

Chiune Sugihara is known to have saved the lives of 6,000 Jewish refugees from persecution in Nazi Germany by issuing Japan transit visas on his own judgment. This humanitarian action by the Acting Consul of the Japanese consulate in Lithuania has become renowned as the source of “Visas for Life.” However, few people know that these Jewish refugees’ escape was accomplished in cooperation with, and as a result of, the good intentions of many people. Most notably, there was another diplomat who issued “Visas for Life” in addition to Chiune Sugihara, whose achievement has not been heralded and whose name is not widely known.

Jan Zwartendijk was the branch director of the prestigious company Philips in Lithuania, and also became the honorary Dutch Consul of Lithuania in June 1940. To help Jewish refugees escape Europe, he issued “entry visas” to Curaçao, a Dutch territory in the Caribbean. The refugees who got the documents then rushed to the Consulate of Japan. For Chiune Sugihara to issue transit visas to Japan, it was an absolute requirement that the refugees had acquired entry visas to third countries far beyond Japan.

In other words, “Curaçao visas” were the original source of the “Visas for Life” by Chiune Sugihara.

By tracing this background, my conviction grows stronger that without talking about Curaҫao visas, Chiune Sugihara’s heroic deeds cannot be talked about. Naturally, the Japanese honor Mr. Chiune Sugihara as a matter of course. However, without the Curaҫao visas, Sugihara visas would not have existed. We Japanese must acknowledge that fact.

Just as such thoughts were developing, I learned that the eldest son of Jan Zwartendijk, his namesake, had written a memoir of those days. I immediately obtained a copy of this essay and discovered this passage.

“The wide publicity surrounding Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese consul in Lithuania in 1940, provides only part of the story of the escape of more than 2,000 Polish Jews trapped in Lithuania at that time….

“Less known is the story of how, and from whom, the refugees got the destination visas that would require them to travel through Japan.”

The strength of feeling shown to the father from his son penetrated through the essay and touched me. Although Mr. Chiune Sugihara’s achievement is now famous worldwide, Jan Zwartendijk’s name is barely known even in his native Netherlands. A sense of mission to contribute to the proper historical recognition of Jan Zwartendijk has blossomed in me.

   In October 2015, just as my resolution was growing, I was invited to the opening ceremony of a Holocaust exhibition titled “Testimony of Courage: Anne Frank and Chiune Sugihara’s Decision” at the Tokyo Metropolitan Theater in Ikebukuro. The Dutch ambassador and the Lithuanian ambassador attended the event as distinguished guests. These two diplomats pointed out that there was another consul who issued visas for Jewish refugees just as Mr. Sugihara did, and referred to Consul Zwartendijk.

  A few days later I visited the Embassy of the Netherlands in Tokyo and conveyed my intention as a Japanese citizen to publicize this fact. The public relations officer was very pleased and then committed to fulfill my hope to meet Zwartendijk’s family. Unfortunately, the eldest son who wrote the memoir had passed away in 2014. However, the second son, Robert Zwartendijk, was introduced to me by the assistance of the Netherlands Embassy.

Soon after I started to exchange emails with Robert. I mentioned that I want to inform many Japanese that his father is the one who issued Curaçao visas. Robert replied with delight and wrote, “I really appreciate your thoughtfulness.” And at the end of the e-mail he added, “What does bother us, however, is that there is a very active movement around the heroic activities of Sugihara, but mostly my father is not even mentioned.”

   Reading these words, the wretched feeling of a bereaved family reached me deeply.

   One year and eight months later, my wish for an interview with Robert Zwartendijk was realized. In late June of this year, I had a talk at the Japanese Chamber of Commerce in the Netherlands, in Amsterdam. During my stay, I visited the home of Robert, located about one hour from Amsterdam via train and bus.

   Robert’s house was in the corner of a quiet residential area. He told me about his recent visit to Kaunas, Lithuania. Kaunas is the town where Chiune Sugihara and Jan Zwartendijk were stationed as consuls of their respective countries. Kaunas became the stage for permitting “Visas for Life.” In this town the Japan Consulate building still stands, and now it has become a museum called Sugihara House. Jan Zwartendijk has also been featured in an exhibit at the museum. Robert introduced himself as the son of Zwartendijk. “The person in charge of the museum was very surprised,” Robert recalled.

   Asking his impressions of Sugihara House, I noticed that Robert looked somewhat perplexed. Visiting the museum that honors Chiune Sugihara, he once again must have been struck by how his father’s achievement has been undervalued.

   “To help Jewish refugees was just a philanthropic act as a human being to my father. He would not want to overly emphasize his achievement. However, it is regrettable that his actions haven’t been paid attention to at all.”

   The words of Robert understandably showed his mixed sentiments as part of a bereaved family.


Looking for the “Angel of Curaçao”

   I wondered why Zwartendijk’s achievement was not known even in his own country. One of the reasons is that the Curaҫao visas were made expediently, and not as proper visas. Strictly speaking, a visa was unnecessary for entry to Curaҫao, but the permission of the governor of Curaçao was required for landing. So Zwartendijk intentionally not only omitted the term “should have the permission of the local governor,” but also noted “no visa needed” and he issued the permits.

   For this reason, most probably, the Netherlands Government later took the position that they did not approve the Curaçao visas that were issued. In other words, the government could not justify Zwartendijk’s actions, and therefore could not agree to approve them totally.

   Another reason that Zwartendijk has still been ignored in Netherlands goes back to the political situation at that time.

   In May 1940, the Netherlands was occupied by Nazi Germany. What would have happened if Nazi Germany knew that the Netherlands Consul had helped Jewish refugees escape?

   Naturally, Chiune Sugihara took a risk as well by issuing the visas. However, unlike the Netherlands under German occupation, Japan was Germany’s ally. There is no way that the Nazi guards could have stepped into an allied country’s consulate saying, “What you are doing is disgraceful,” and arrest the diplomat.

   In contrast, in the case of the Netherlands occupied by the Nazis, people had learned that anyone defying Nazi wishes was committing an act of treason and could be gunned down. In light of this terrible danger, a full preparedness was needed to issue visas for the Jews. The Curaçao visa was indeed a “visa for life” offered in exchange for the life of the Netherlands Consul.

   In August 1940, the Netherlands Consulate at Kaunas in Lithuania was closed down and Zwartendijk returned to the Netherlands. Until the end of the war in 1945, he literally must have been holding his breath at every moment.

   Well after the Second World War ended, the embers of war were still smoldering. Jan Zwartendijk and his family were forced to live quietly for this reason, withholding the fact that he had issued visas to Jewish refugees. Even after his acts were revealed, the Netherlands Government never publicized the facts.

   On the other hand, in this respect Chiune Sugihara fared better. He was obliged to retire from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs right after returning home. After experiencing various hardships, Mr. Sugihara got a job in foreign trade. Sugihara visa recipients found him during his overseas work in Moscow.

   During the war, the lives of many Jews were saved by Sugihara. Upon learning this fact, many were eager to return the favor to Sugihara.

   After some survivors lobbied Israeli Government officials, Sugihara was awarded Yad Vashem’s award as “Righteous Among the Nations” from the Israeli Government, a year before his death in 1985. In the sense that the achievement was recognized before he died, Sugihara must have been very happy.

   Jan Zwartendijk passed away in 1976. The Israeli Government finally recognized his achievements posthumously. The Yad Vashem “Righteous Among the Nations” honor was bestowed on him twenty-one years after his death. Both Sugihara and Zwartendijk devoted themselves to the deliverance of the Jewish people as diplomats, but the evaluation of their achievements shows quite a contrast. In Zwartendijk’s native country, the Netherlands, some continued to honor his activities, but there is nothing compared to the acclaim Sugihara has acquired in Japan. The acclaim for the fact of their acts cannot be compared.

   However, there were some among the Jewish people who kept inquiring about Zwartendijk’s whereabouts in memory of his actions. He was called “Curaҫao’s Angel” among Jews who fled from the hands of the Nazis. “What is that Angel of Curaҫao doing? We must find him and express our gratitude as Jews!”—probably they were motivated by such a thought. Twenty years ago a group of survivors saved by Curaҫao visas visited New York City from Israel. They cooperated with survivors living in New York, and invited Zwartendijk’s children for a meeting of gratitude. Former Jewish refugees never forgot the favor received from Zwartendijk.

  They collected signatures and led a campaign that the Angel of Curaçao should be given a Yad Vashem Award. They continued to appeal to the Israeli Government. As I mentioned, Zwartendijk was conferred the award in 1997.

  As a result a movement belatedly spread in the Netherlands to honor the humanitarian diplomat in his own country. Last year a television drama aired, and an ongoing publishing plan for a Zwartendijk biography is shaping up. The book, by a well-known author, will be published in the coming year.


Searching for survivors began with one album.

   Moving onto a subject that I’ve written about, my research about the drama of Jewish refugees escaping the Nazis during World War II was originally triggered by one photo album. It was when I was at JNTO that my former boss Mr. Tatsuo Osako showed the album to me. During the war, as an official of Japan Tourist Bureau (currently JTB), Mr. Osako was involved in the maritime transportation of Jews escaping through Japan to America and Israel. (In particular, he was involved in assisting transit from Vladivostok to Tsuruga, Fukui prefecture.) In the album, there were seven photographs of mostly Jewish men and women that Osako cared for on his boat duty.

   It was September 2010 when I started my journey of searching for and investigating Sugihara survivors in the United States. One of them was Benjamin Fishoff, an 87-year-old banker. He had been seeking to land in Tsuruga with a Sugihara visa but had to turn back once to Vladivostok because he did not have a Curaҫao visa, Fishoff told me. Although I had heard stories about Curaçao visas and Zwartendijk from the persons concerned, I think I wasn’t paying much attention at the time.

   However, as my knowledge of Curaçao visas deepened, I started to reflect on the fact that without Curaçao visas, Sugihara visas could not have been arranged. Therefore, we Japanese should show respect not only to our Japanese brother Chiune Sugihara, but also extend honor to Jan Zwartendijk, who issued Curaҫao visas. Such a thought grows stronger day by day.

   In recent years, Japanese school textbooks have covered Chiune Sugihara and praise him as a person that Japan can be proud of in front of the whole world. There are absolutely no objections to that. But the existence of the Netherlands Consul who rescued Jews, besides Sugihara, and the fact that Curaҫao visas were a necessary condition in the background for arranging Sugihara visas, are things we ought to know.


Good intentions of countless people saved the life of Jewish people.

   Jewish people who left Lithuania with Sugihara visas and Curaҫao visas must have experienced indescribable hardships. In the background, enabling them to pass through Japan to safely travel to the United States, Canada, Australia, and Israel, there would have been an abundance of the good faith of countless people.

   Saburo Nei, Acting Consulate-General of Japan in Vladivostok at the time, also recognized the Sugihara visa “Issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan” and approved the departure of the Jews. Jewish refugees aboard the ship, Amakusa Maru, traveled over the Japan Sea. With Osako’s devoted assistance they landed in Tsuruga, Japan.

   As people in Tsuruga warmly welcomed the sudden appearance of the large number of Jewish refugees, a wide variety of actions in support were carried out, such as presenting food to feed people and opening public baths just to the refugees. Also, in Kobe, Hebrew scholar Dr. Setsuzou Kotsuji banqueted local senior police officers and successfully extended the duration of the Jewish people’s stay. Without such cooperation of the people in Tsuruga and Kobe, thousands of Jewish refugees could not possibly have been sent safely to their third country, the last stop on their journey to freedom.

   However, in the current situation, stories of these anonymous people are almost totally untold. Without showing the whole picture in which all these famous and obscure people have supported this escape drama, an accurate historical awareness cannot arise. I would like to proclaim this loudly.

   At the Yaotsu town office in Gifu Prefecture, Chiune Sugihara’s hometown, they have preserved an original document, a passport bearing a Curaçao visa together with a Sugihara visa. The document was donated by a survivor named Sylvia Smoller. A replica of the document is exhibited in the Sugihara Chiune Memorial Hall in Yaotsu. Nearby in Jindounooka Park, the name of which means “Hill of Humanity,” there is a bust of Chiune Sugihara. Couldn’t we honor Jan Zwartendijk more in Japan by installing the bust of Zwartendijk sitting next to Chiune Sugihara’s?

   Along with Chiune Sugihara, there were more people who dedicated their lives to the deliverance of the Jewish refugees. In addition, the escape of Jewish refugees was supported by the goodwill of many anonymous people and unsung heroes. I think it’s important to disseminate the proper understanding of this fact to the world, starting from Japan.


Akira Kitade with Jan Zwartendijk son Robert

Author's note:

The number of Jewish refugees saved by Sugihara is said to be 6,000.

This number was not claimed by Sugihara himself; rather, it is estimated on the basis that a family of three members could travel with one visa.

Although the “Sugihara list” records the names of 2,139 Jewish refugees who received visas from him, it is believed that Sugihara issued more visas than this figure.

Also, taking into account the difficult situation in which he was working in those last days and hours of the consulate, it can easily be imagined that Sugihara could not record the names of those to whom he issued visas after No. 2,139.